Maureen N. McLane’s “Twisting and Turning”

30 03 2009


The turn is so rarely discussed in the conversation about contemporary American poetry that it’s always worth noting when the turn in fact does come up in that conversation.

The latest issue of American Poet (36 (Spring 2009)) contains one such new discussion: Maureen N. McLane’s “Twisting and Turning.”  This essay, subtitled “A Divagation Prompted by the Poets Forum Panel of November 8, 2008,” is a kind of round-up or encapsulation of the panel on “Twisting and Turning” (a panel featuring McLane, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, and Susan Stewart) at the Academy of American Poets’ Poets Forum in New York.

On the one hand, there truly is much to like about this essay.  It draws attention to the turn, giving a feel for the great range of ideas and perspectives that must have arisen during the panel discussion.  And, more specifically, the essay offers some very good information; for example, it points to some poems that not only make turns but also refer to turns or the action of turning.  These poems include William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy…,” Frank Bidart’s “The Yoke,” and Bernadette Mayer’s “First turn to me….”  “Twisting and Turning” is a very good, occasional essay, worth the attention of anyone interested in the poetic turn.

However, on the other hand, the essay also shares a somewhat problematic trait with some other discussions of the turn: when discussed too broadly the turn, in fact, becomes too diffuse to be considered the active part of poems it really is.  For example, McLane writes:

“One could, of course, explore poetic turns at multiple levels: morphemic, lexical, phrasal, tropological, conceptual, structural, generic, transmedial.  We might consider how poetry turns away from or turns toward their various inheritances; how bilingual or multilingual poets turn their poems through various linguistic and semantic and cultural grids.  From a certain vantage, of course, there is nothing that is not a turn in poetry: The very word verse comes from versus, ‘turn’ in Latin.”

Of course, it certainly is the case that, defined so broadly, turns are everywhere in poetry, and that all of the issues and components in and among poems that McLane says are turns might in fact be labeled turns.  The problem with this, however, is that, defined this way, the turn, which is meant to mean so much, loses all of its specific meaning.  For example, directly following the above quote, the turn turns into one more discussion of form; McLane writes:

“(Let us defer for another essay the question of whether poetry = verse: obviously it doesn’t!  Or rather, let’s concede that the equation of poetry and verse has been vexed in English-language poetries for some two hundred years [see Wordsworth, even before Baudelaire].  Nevertheless.)”

“Twisting and Turning” begins by referencing the sonnet’s turn, which McLane calls “only the most conspicuous example of the formal and cognitive turns a poem may enact.”  But then it leaps out to consider, or rather mention, all the various kinds of turns there could potentially be in a poem, and the turn comes to mean everything, even formal verse.  However, while such a move is theoretically justifiable (and, indeed, very likely was necessitated by the essay’s drive to include a variety of perspectives and takes on the turn), it should be noted that this leap also leaps over much of the detailed work there is to do to think about and bring to light the kinds of turning specifically focused on in Structure & Surprise, the kind of rhetorical and dramatic turn that T.S. Eliot calls “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”

As I discuss in my own American Poet essay, we need to try to be more specific when it comes to defining and discussing turns.  I think we more fully give the turn its due when we consider as a turn the structural turns featured in so many poems.  Somewhat paradoxically, this limits the conversation about turns, but in this way it also focuses and concentrates the conversation, making it potentially even more helpful and productive: in this way we can, for example, see that there are specific (if under-discussed) trends and traditions in terms of how poems turn, and we can appreciate poems for the ways they deploy and invent their structural twists and turns.  In this way, the turn becomes a truly well-known quantity, an unavoidable one, one which then can be further problematized and investigated.

Kudos to Maureen McLane for a lively discussion of the turn, one which gives anyone interested in turns much to appreciate and to think over.

Bill Morgan’s “Ephemeroptera”

20 03 2009


Check out Bill Morgan’s “Ephemeroptera.”  Among many other things, it is a great example of a poem using the meaning-to-metaphor structure.

Joanne Diaz’s “Violin”

12 03 2009



Check out Joanne Diaz’s “Violin,” a terrific poem that employs beautifully the metaphor-to-meaning structure.

Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 03 2009

A few posts back, I offered the first two steps of a poem-writing exercise:

“For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);

2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…”

And here are the final steps:

3) Read about the “Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure,” paying close attention to Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Kinnell’s “The Bear”;

4) After your description, turn your poem in the manner of “The Albatross” and/or “The Bear” so that your poem concludes by referencing poetry (and so turns your initial description into a metaphor for poetry).

You may need or want to do some revising–perhaps you can/want to now adjust your initial description a little bit so that it more smoothly “fits” its role as a metaphor for poetry.

For those playing along: sorry to keep you in the dark about what you were going to do with your description, but I think not knowing this is an important part of this process–otherwise, one might write too much with the notion that the description is a metaphor in mind, and so leave out a lot of details and specifics that might help the poem to be of interest.

If you tried this exercise, and you wrote something you liked and want to share, send along a copy–!

Q & A, Part 3

6 03 2009



This post is the third in a series of posts responding to questions posed to me about Structure & Surprise from a group of poets in an advanced poetry writing workshop at Hope College.  (For the previous 2 posts, see Q & A, parts 1 & 2, signposted with the same bright orange anchor that tops this post.)


Today’s question comes from Jon Dean.  Jon asks:


“Is it possible to mix structures?  What does that look like?”


Great questions, Jon!


You bet it’s possible to mix structures.  As Randall Jarrell says in his great lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “There are many different sorts of structure in poetry, many possible ways of organizing a poem; and many of these combined in the organization of a single poem.”  I’d simply add that in the same way that formal innovation can be a big part of the fun of working with form, structural innovation can be a big part of the pleasure of working with structure.


So, what does this look like?


I want to discuss two things here: structural overlap, and mixed structures.


I think, Jon, you’re NOT asking about structural overlap in your question, but I want to touch on it briefly here.  By structural overlap, I’m referring to the simple fact that some structures, well, um, overlap.  For example, you’ll see that I’ve added a structure on this blog called “List-with-a-Twist.”  One of the things I mention about that structure is that it is one way to describe MANY poems, many of which might also be structurally described in other ways.  Take, for example, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”  This is categorized in Structure & Surprise as a retrospective-prospective poem, but, like many retrospective-prospective poems it also is a list-with-a-twist.  Here, structures certainly are mixing.


However, I think, Jon, you may have something different in mind when you ask about mixing structures: you’re wondering about grafting parts of different structures onto each other, yes?  This, also, is certainly possible.  Indeed, this is something I try to get at on p. 232 of the “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” portion of Structure & Surprise, where I suggest: “Write a poem with a hybrid structure: a descriptive-meditative poem that employs an elegiac structure for its meditation; a dialectical poem that ends with an ironic punch line instead of a synthesis; an emblem poem with a long line of concessions attached.”


I think one can see some of this hybrid nature at work in some of the descriptive-meditative poems included in Structure & Surprise.  Take, for example, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”  While generally a three-part descriptive-meditative poem, the poem’s meditation, it’s middle part, itself has two very distinct parts: one offering some details about Coleridge’s childhood, and one envisioning Coleridge’s son’s (hopefully) happy future.  This meditation, therefore, seems to participate in a kind of temporal and psychological structure we’ve come to call retrospective-prospective.  Thus, “Frost at Midnight” might be understood to be a descriptive-meditative poem that employs a retrospective-prospective structure for its meditation.


We shouldn’t be too surprised by this.  Meditations are not themselves static.  Rather, they move, wander, develop, coalesce, break, and in the descriptive-meditative poem they need to do enough of this to provide transport, to carry a reader convincingly from one perspective on the surrounding scene to another perspective on the same scene.


I’d also add, Jon, that there are certain big poems that employ many structures within them.  Take, for example, Whitman’s Song of Myself, in this long poem, many different kinds of structures are used in the poem’s various sections.  Look only at section 6 of that poem and you’ll find something like an emblem poem (much meditation on the meaning of that child’s handful of grass) and an elegy, including a confident consolatory statement that the dead (referenced in the section’s emblem movement) also live on somewhere…


(Note: if you get turned on by Whitman’s Song of Myself, you might want to look at a book called The Modern Poetic Sequence, by M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall—very smart, and insightful!)


As I mention in Structure & Surprise, structure loves surprise, often aims for it.  Thus, perhaps we should not be too surprised that structure itself not only leads to surprise but also can be shaped, grafted, molded, welded, and wielded in surprising ways.


Thanks again, Jon!


(A few more responses coming up in the next few days…)

Q & A, Part 2

2 03 2009


In this post, I’m continuing the process of answering a series of questions posed to me by members of an advanced poetry workshop at Hope College.  (For Part 1, see below, or in the February 2009 archives–look for the orange anchor.)

For this post, I want to think a bit on the following question posed by Karly Fogelsonger:

“In the Intro [to Structure & Surprise], Theune says, ‘structure’s primary goal is to lead to surprise.’  Could you talk a little bit about what ‘surprise’ means to you, and why it’s so important in a poem?”

Great question, Karly!  One of the things I like so much about this question is that it gets me to investigate my own assumptions–I just kind of figured that surprise is one of the things poems are after…it’s good to be pushed to try to give reasons to my assumptions.

What do I mean by surprise?  I mean by it, largely, what everyone means by it: that vital encounter with the unexpected.  We humans seem to love and crave this.  (Well, not Angela from The Office, who says (I think I’m quoting her correctly) that she doesn’t like surprises because she doesn’t like to be “titillated.”  Of course, Angela has always seemed to me a bit more Vulcan than human.)  And one big job of art is to feed that crave–art, not just poetry.  Surprises, reversals, revelations, punch lines, ironies–these simply are at the heart of so many of the arts.  Tragedy: Oedipus: “I slept with whom?!”  Comedy: you want an example of structure and surprise?–watch Curb Your Enthusiasm…in the best episodes, all the pieces of the plot are organized to lead to a wild, surprising orchestration of occurrences at show’s end.  The surprising twist is a key feature of many pop songs.  It’s also huge in detective fiction.  (I get my fix via Law and Order.)  And in the movies (especially–but not only–thrillers: The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Others, etc, etc.)

Though surprise is such a big part of so much art, I think it tends to get downplayed in poetry.  I don’t know why, but we often don’t talk a lot about surprise in poems, but, at least for me, the element of surprise is a huge part of the phenomena of reading and experiencing great poetry.  The poems I love take me to new, often unexpected places.

Now, let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that I expect something to “jump out at me” at the end of every poem.  In fact, a poem can surprise by reducing, by downshifting, its energy.  Very often, what’s important (among the many things important in poems) is that some kind(s) of shift, swerve, or twist (in short, a turn) occur(s).

And I’m not the only one to think so.  As I mention in the intro to Structure & Surprise, Randall Jarrell says that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And contemporary critic Hank Lazer (in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”) states, “The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) that have some pretty thrilling turns, click here.)

Poems turn and surprise in a variety of ways, but there is a quality of turn that I admire very much: I love the quality of fitting surprise.  I love surprises that at once fit their occasions, that clearly evolve from the parts of the poem which preceded it, while also doing something unexpected.  Here, I agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who, in Poetic Closure, states, “…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.”  Such fitting and surprising turns are the essence of both wit and the sublime.

While, as I’ve tried to show above, I really do value surprise, I also value surprise as a part of poems for what it allows me to not say.  By saying I value surprise, I do not have to say, for example, that structure must lead specifically to an epiphany, or a logical conclusion, or a punch line, or a decision, etc.  Poems are various and lead to many things.  By saying that poems (often) should surprise, I get to remain open regarding the many kinds of developments, turns, and arrivals poems have.

That’s it for now…  Thanks, again, Karly, for your good question.  Stay tuned, all, for more surprises…